“Yes, there is! After all you have done for everyone else, why shouldn’t you marry a girl of your own choosing—a spirited and perfectly lovely girl, I might add—without having to endure Mother’s silly speeches about the family lineage?”

The countess trained a vicious gaze on her youngest child. “You are ill-qualified to participate in any discussion of the family lineage, child, in light of the fact that you scarcely qualify as Marsden issue. Or must I remind you that you were the result of a single night’s dalliance with a visiting footman? The late earl had no choice but to accept you in lieu of being labeled a cuckold, but still—”

“Livia,” Marcus interrupted tersely, extending a hand to his sister, who had turned white. The news was far from a surprise to her, but the countess had never dared to voice it openly until now. Rising to her feet, Livia came to him at once, her eyes blazing in her pale face. Marcus curved a protective arm around her back and pulled her close as he murmured in her ear. “It’s best if you leave now. There are things that must be said—and I won’t have you caught in the crossfire.”

“It’s all right,” Livia said with only a slight tremor in her voice. “I don’t mind the things she says …She lost the power to hurt me long ago.”

“But I mind them on your behalf,” he replied gently. “Go find your husband, Livia, and let him comfort you, while I deal with the countess.”

Livia looked up at him then, her face much calmer. “I’ll go find him,” she said. “Though I don’t need comfort.”

“Good girl.” He kissed the top of her head.

Surprised by the show of affection, Livia chuckled a little and stepped back from him.

“What are you whispering about?” the countess demanded testily.

Marcus ignored her as he walked his sister to the door, and closed it quietly behind her. When he turned to face the countess, his face was grim. “The circumstances of Livia’s birth do not reflect on her character,” he said. “They reflect on yours. I don’t give a damn if you chose to dally with a footman or even if you bore his issue …but I mind very much that you should shame Livia for it. She’s lived beneath the shadow of your wrongdoing for her entire life, and paid dearly for your past indulgences.”

“I will not apologize for my needs,” the countess snapped. “In the absence of your father’s affections, I had to take my pleasures where I found them.”

“And you let Livia take the brunt of the blame.” His mouth twisted. “Though I saw the way she was maltreated and neglected as a child, I could do nothing to protect her at the time. But now I can. There will be no further mention of this subject to her. Ever. Do you understand?”

Despite the quiet timbre of his voice, his volcanic fury must have communicated itself to her, for she did not protest or argue. She only swallowed hard and nodded.

A full minute passed as both of them marshaled their emotions into order. The countess was the first to launch an offensive. “Westcliff,” she said in a controlled manner, “has it occurred to you that your father would have despised that Bowman girl and everything she represents?”

Marcus stared at her blankly. “No,” he said at length, “it had not occurred to me.” His late father had been absent from his thoughts for so long that Marcus hadn’t thought to wonder what his impression of Lillian Bowman might be. The fact that his mother supposed it would matter to him was astonishing.

Assuming that she had given him cause for second thought, the countess pressed on with increasing determination. “You always desired to please him,” she continued, “and you often did, though he rarely acknowledged it. Perhaps you won’t believe me when I say that underneath it all, your father had only your best interests in mind. He wished to mold you into a man who was worthy of the title, a powerful man who would never be taken advantage of. A man like himself. And for the most part he succeeded.”

The words were intended to flatter Marcus. They had the opposite effect, striking him like an ax blow to the chest. “No, he didn’t,” he said hoarsely.

“You know what kind of woman he would want to sire his grandchildren,” the countess said. “The Bowman girl is unworthy of you, Westcliff, unworthy of your name and your blood. Imagine a meeting between the two of them …her and your father. You know how he would have loathed her.”

Marcus suddenly imagined Lillian confronting his devil of a father, who had awed and terrified everyone he had ever encountered. There was no doubt in his mind that Lillian would have reacted to the old earl with her customary flippancy. She would not have feared him for a second.

At his continued silence, the countess spoke in a softer tone. “Of course she has her charms. I can well understand the attractions that those of the lower order can hold for us—they sometimes appeal to our desire for the exotic. And there is no surprise in the fact you, like all men, crave variety in your female pursuits. If you want her, then by all means have her. The solution is obvious: after you both have married other people, you and she may have an affair until you tire of her. Our kind always finds love outside of marriage—it is better that way, you will see.”

The room was unnaturally quiet, while Marcus’s mind seethed with soul-corroding memories and bitter echoes of voices long since silenced. Though he despised the role of a martyr and had never cast himself in that light, he could not help but reflect that for most of his life, his own needs had gone largely unaddressed as he had shouldered his responsibilities. Now he had finally found a woman who offered all the warmth and enjoyment that had been so long overdue him …and damn it all, he had a right to demand the support of family and friends, no matter what private reservations they might have. His thoughts ventured into darker territory as he considered the earliest years of his life, when his father had sent away anyone for whom Marcus had felt an attachment. To keep him from being weak. To keep him from being dependent on anyone other than himself. It had established a pattern of isolation that had ruled Marcus’s entire life until now. But no longer.

As for his mother’s suggestion, that he have an affair with Lillian when they were both married to other people, the idea offended Marcus down to the bottom of his soul. It would be nothing but a perverse imitation of the honest relationship that they both deserved.

“Listen well,” he said when he could finally trust himself to speak. “Before this conversation began, I was fully determined to make her my wife. But were it possible to increase my resolve, your words just now would have done it. Do not doubt me when I say that Lillian Bowman is the only woman on this earth whom I would ever consider marrying. Her children will be my heirs, or else the Marsden line stops with me. From now on my overriding concern is her well-being. Any word, gesture, or action that threatens her happiness will meet with the worst consequences imaginable. You will never give her cause to believe that you are anything but pleased by our marriage. The first word I hear to the contrary will earn you a very long carriage ride away from the estate. Away from England. Permanently.”

“You can’t mean what you are saying. You are in a temper. Later, when you have calmed yourself, we will—”

“I’m not in a temper. I’m in deadly earnest.”

“You’ve gone mad!”

“No, my lady. For the first time in my life I have a chance at happiness—and I will not lose it.”

“You fool,” the countess whispered, trembling visibly with fury.

“Whatever comes of it, marrying her will be the least foolish thing I’ve ever done,” he replied, and took his leave of her with a shallow bow.

CHAPTER 21

Later that morning Annabelle excused herself from the breakfast room with an apologetic murmur. “I’m feeling rather green again,” she said. “I believe I shall retire to my room for just a little while. Fortunately Mr. Hunt is out riding, and he won’t know that I’m taking a nap.”

“I’ll w-walk with you to your room,” said Evie in concern.

“Oh, Evie, dear, there’s no need…”

“It will be the perfect excuse to avoid Aunt Florence, wh-who is probably looking for me.”

“Well, in that case, thank you.” Battling a wave of nausea, Annabelle leaned gratefully on Evie’s arm as they departed.

Lillian and Daisy made to follow the pair.

“I don’t think she will be able to keep the news from Mr. Hunt for long, do you?” Daisy whispered.

“Not at this rate,” Lillian whispered back. “I’m certain he must suspect something, since Annabelle is usually as healthy as a horse.”

“Perhaps. However, I have heard that men are sometimes oblivious to such matters…”

As they left the breakfast room, they saw Lady Olivia walking along the hallway, her pretty face wreathed with a perturbed expression. It was odd to see her frowning, as she was usually a singularly cheerful woman. Lillian wondered what had happened to upset her.

Glancing up, Lady Olivia saw the pair of sisters, and her face cleared. A warm smile came to her lips. “Good morning.”

Although Lady Olivia was only two or three years older than Lillian, she seemed infinitely more worldy-wise, possessing the eyes of a woman who had known great sadness in her past. It was that sense of unknown experiences, so far beyond Lillian’s own, that had always made her feel a bit awkward around Lady Olivia. Though the earl’s sister was a charming conversationalist, one had the perception that there were questions that should not be asked, and subjects that were sensitive.

“I was going to the orangery,” Lady Olivia said.

“We shan’t stop you, then,” Lillian replied, fascinated by the faintest trace of resemblance to Westcliff in the woman’s face…nothing distinctive, but a certain look about the eyes, and the smile…

“Do come with me,” Lady Olivia urged. Seeming to obey a sudden impulse, she reached out for Lillian’s hand, her small fingers wrapping around Lillian’s much longer ones. “I’ve just had the most interesting conversation with the earl. I would love to discuss it with you.”

Oh good God. He had told his sister, then. And very possibly his mother. Lillian shot a glance of veiled panic at her sister, who proved to be no help whatsoever.

“I’m heading to the library for a novel,” Daisy announced brightly. “The one I’m reading now is something of a disappointment, and I don’t care to finish it.”

“Go to the last row on the right, two shelves from the floor,” Lady Olivia advised. “And look behind the books in front. I’ve hidden my favorite novels there—wicked stories that no innocent girl should read. They’ll corrupt you immeasurably.”

Daisy’s dark eyes lit up at the information. “Oh, thank you!” She scampered away without a backward glance, while Lady Olivia grinned.

“Come,” she said, tugging Lillian through the breakfast room. “If we’re to be sisters, there are some things you will want to know. I’m an invaluable source of information, and I’m feeling quite gabby at the moment.”

Amused, Lillian went with her to the orangery, which branched off from the breakfast room. It was warm and fragrant, with the noonday sun approaching and heat coming from the grillwork vents in the floor.

“It’s not entirely certain that we will be sisters,” Lillian remarked, sitting beside her on a cane bench with a curved French back. “If the earl implied that something has been agreed upon—”

“No, he didn’t go that far. However, he did express some rather serious intentions toward you.” Lady Olivia’s hazel-green eyes were bright with smiling inquiry, and yet there was a watchful quality in them. “No doubt I should be restrained and tactful, but I simply can’t bear it, I have to ask…Are you going to accept him?”

Lillian, who was never at a loss for words, found herself stammering as badly as Evie. “I…I…”

“Forgive me,” Lady Olivia said, taking pity on her. “As those who know me best will attest, I love to go charging into other peoples’ affairs. I hope I haven’t offended you.”

“No.”

“Good. I never seem to get on well with people who are easily offended.”

“Neither do I,” Lillian confessed, her shoulders relaxing, and they both smiled. “My lady, the situation being what it is—although you may not know the details, unless the earl—”

“No,” Lady Olivia reassured her gently. “As always, my brother was closemouthed about the details. He is an annoyingly private man who adores tormenting inquisitive people like myself. Go on.”

“The truth is that I want to accept him,” Lillian said frankly. “But I do have a few reservations.”

“Of course you do,” Lady Olivia said promptly. “Marcus is an overwhelming man. He does everything well, and he makes certain that everyone is aware of it. One can’t approach the simplest of endeavors, such as brushing your teeth, without having him advise whether you should begin with the molars or incisors.”

“Yes.”

“A dreadfully trying man,” Lady Olivia continued, “who insists on seeing things in absolutes—right or wrong, good or bad. He is opinionated and overbearing, not to mention incapable of admitting that he is ever wrong.”

It was clear that Lady Olivia would have gone on at length about Marcus’s flaws, but Lillian experienced a sudden rush of defensiveness. After all, it wasn’t quite fair to paint such a harsh portrait of him. “All that may be true,” she said, “but one has to give Lord Westcliff credit for being honest. He always keeps his word. And even when he is overbearing, he is only trying to do what he thinks is best for other people.”

“I suppose…” Lady Olivia said dubiously, and that encouraged Lillian to expound on the subject.

“Moreover, a woman who married Lord Westcliff would never have to fear him straying. He would be faithful to her. He would make her feel safe, because he would always take care of her and never lose his head in an emergency.”

“But he is rigid,” Lady Olivia insisted.

“Not really—”

“And cold-natured,” Lady Olivia said with a regretful shake of her head.

“Oh no,” Lillian argued, “not in the least. He is the most—” She stopped abruptly, turning scarlet as she saw Lady Olivia’s satisfied smile. She had just been neatly cornered.


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